Friday night topic: The decline of fast food


— 5:13 PM on August 30, 2013

I recognize tastes change over time, and mine are no exception. I undoubtedly have different ideas about what constitutes a good meal today than in past stages of my life.

I also realize that folks' gastronomic expectations generally have changed. American food and drink have been transformed over the past 30 years or so. Ethnic food restaurants of many kinds have proliferated across the continent. Our beer scene has been miraculously converted from a vast wasteland to a rich and varied landscape. "Casual dining" chains have popped up and spread like viruses, yielding solid mediocrity or better—a new baseline to be matched. Meanwhile, quite a few people are into fresh foods, organics, home cooking, and eating healthy.

We now mock fast-food chains and the food they serve as bottom-of-the-barrel experiences to be endured rather than enjoyed as an occasional indulgence.

But still...

I'm pretty sure that, in the context of all of these changes, most of our fast-food joints have slid a long, long way downhill from where they started. Some anecdotes:

As a kid, I distinctly remember Sunday lunches after church, family occasions, where we'd get a bucket of fried chicken and some sides from Kentucky Fried Chicken to share. Heck, I remember sitting around the dining room table, still in our Sunday best, eating such a meal, and it all seemed fitting. The Colonel's 11 herbs and spices really were a pretty good combo. The meat was decent in quality, and the breading was nicely done. I even preferred some of the sides to our home-cooked fare, especially the biscuits.

Years passed, and one evening on break from college, I drove through the same local KFC to grab some dinner. I had the evening to myself, hadn't had fried chicken in ages, and was excited to revisit an old favorite. Mind you, I had been subsisting on cafeteria food at the time, so I was not in a place to be terribly picky.

I still remember when the box of food was passed to me in the car, the bottom was soaked through with grease. That was new and not a good omen. I persisted, took the food home, and ate it, even though it was a greasy, slimy mess.

What followed was a lost evening of stomach churning, crippling lethargy, and regret.

I told that story a few times to friends and family, and I came to realize this awful food was the new "normal" for that chain. I'm pretty sure KFC has gone further downhill since then.

Similarly, I remember dining out at Pizza Hut being, no kidding, a somewhat classy kind of thing. The atmosphere was nice for a pizza joint, and the deep-dish pizza was excellent, a crispy buttered crust filled with a thick layer of sauce and toppings.

Time passed, I had kids, and one night when stuck at home while my wife was out, I decided to order from Pizza Hut for dinner.  What eventually arrived at my door was a puffy, bready, no-sauce-having disaster with a microscopic layer of cheese. The toppings that might have been freeze dried before soaking up the grease.

That nasty echo of once-good pizza is the new standard for Pizza Hut, based on my experiences since at various airport food courts and the like.

My sense is that most of the major fast food chains have suffered a similar fate (except maybe Taco Bell, which never had any pretenses). The big burger joints are horrible now, more so than five or 10 years ago. The beef is kind of scary. Jack in the Box is legitimately scary. The pull of cost-cutting and corporate food engineering appears to be irresistible, somehow. I think it's sad, since it's getting harder to find a quick, affordable meal that isn't mostly atrocious.

This is happening, right? Back me up here—or don't. Discuss.

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